Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 3)

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Apparently, I had a lot more to say on this topic than I thought, and it’s taken me until the third post to get to the item list that was the core of why I started writing this series in the first place. So without further ado…

Types of Items for Sale

Trinkets

Not every vendor in the market has epic items that will change your life forever. Probably the majority of them are a lot like their mortal counterparts: selling the everyday things that visitors to the market might need. Depending on the weirdness of the average customer, this could vary from goods that wouldn’t be out of place at any mortal market to items that have similar functions but alien appearances. Mostly, for mortal visitors, this winds up basically being tchotchkes: the kind of slightly unusual token you bring back to show your neighbors that you’ve seen wonders they couldn’t even imagine.

They might even accept your own coin or unusual goods for trade, letting you dip your toe in the market without bartering anything you aren’t prepared to part with.

Snacks and Merriment

It wouldn’t be a fair without delicious food, drink, and revelry to part you from your coin. As mentioned previously, they’re probably not glamoured fruits that will make you sick to death or tricks that keep you from ever leaving faerieland. At least the reputable vendors don’t sell that kind of thing. But the foods are delicious, empty calories, often spun into daring shapes that can’t be accomplished in human ovens with mortal gravity, and the entertainments are… extremely memorable.

Many of them are even touched with magic and might give you a small bonus to something relevant for an hour or two.

Exotic Goods

Beside the trinket vendors are the merchants with the things that are truly beyond what you can get in the mortal world. They sell bolts of cloth or fully-tailored clothing better than anything you’ve ever felt, metals that mortal metallurgists wouldn’t believe could exist, gems made of captured light, and chemicals that would make a mortal alchemist or baker weep at the possibilities.

Many of these things don’t last long outside of the market, falling apart under coarse mortal hands or turning into leaves with the dawn. If you can keep them up, the maintenance requires care and/or magic almost (almost) beyond what it’s worth. But they still might be useful for as long as they last, particularly if you’ve been invited to an event and aren’t properly attired.

Some of them might last, of course, if it suits the whimsy of the GM for them to persist. In particular, raw materials might survive into the mortal world… what better way to vex mortal crafters that try and fail to work them?

Secrets

If you need to know a particularly useful and hidden bit of lore, the market is the place to ask around. As noted previously, information at the market changes hands like physical goods: you’re paying not just to know something, but to be the holder of an exclusive (or, at least, extremely limited) piece of data. You can get weaknesses of your enemies, quest hooks, lost histories, and even spells from the right vendor for the right price.

Of course, the fact that you were asking around for these things is strangely free of the limited nature of secrets… the fae might gossip about your desires to almost anyone. That might particularly include someone who desperately wanted to know a secret that you now exclusively own.

Enchantment Shifting

To mortals, “permanent” magic is static, but, to many of the fae, it’s much more fluid. Have a curse you need taken off of you? Have a magic weapon that’s not your specialized type? There may be someone that can help you move that enchantment to a home more to your liking.

Magic as Commodity

The standard consumables are just the start for the types of magic you can buy at the market. Virtually any spell could find a home in a crafted good: to the fae, it’s not enchantment, just their own particular brand of handiwork. As noted previously, these should often be much easier to get than the rules expect, because of the spoilage factor.

Memories and Talents

Of course, the core currency of the market can also be an end in itself. Need to boost an ability or skill? Someone else may have paid in the right qualities that a merchant could distill the draught for you.

These bonuses should range from the slight to the overwhelming, and from the momentary to the permanent. Maybe you only need the memories of a genius or the muscles of a troll for a moment to solve a problem, or maybe you’d like a slighter bonus for longer. The pricing for this should probably start similar to a potion that boosts an ability for a short period, adjusted for magnitude and duration, and discounted for drawbacks.

In addition to the normal drawback of spoilage, the hidden drawback of this kind of thing is the danger of taking in someone else’s identity.

Mental ability scores and skills tend to come from a constellation of memories and emotions, not all of them healthy. Is it worth it to be smart, if you suddenly have a genius’ pedantry and arrogance? Is it worth it to be incredibly charismatic and artistic, if you are suddenly wracked with depression engendered by a long-lost muse?

Physical ability scores and skills can be even more troubling, drifting into the realm of body horror. The muscles of a troll may come with many of the troll’s other physical characteristics. And sometimes the stories of being turned into frogs are just an offended merchant selling a particular distillation of a potion of agility…

Teaching a Mortal to Fish

Perhaps the most efficient purchase you can make, if you’re mystically inclined, are the secrets used to build containers and fill them with currency. With sufficient dedication, you can spend the weeks until the next fair gathering dross from your own home town out of dreams, emotions, and secrets no one will even miss, and save up for something at no cost to your own identity. For the patient and industrious, it’s the best investment you could make.

Of course, some people say that many fae were once mortal practitioners with a greed for faerie things and the right start down the slippery slope…

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 2)

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Last week, I talked about the overall themes and possibility space of market items, and this week I’ll delve more into mechanics.

The Economy of the Market

While it may move away from keeping the workings of the market seeming totally alien, it does help to have some kind of rational economic basis in your head as a GM. The fae merchants absolutely haggle, and some things may be arbitrarily expensive or cheap as a way of modeling alien values, but this is theoretically still a place where fae merchants do what mortal merchants do: sell items for a price that covers their expenses plus profits. Thus, having some kind of math in the background gains in verisimilitude what it loses in inscrutability. You don’t want the players getting pissed off that everything happens to cost either a negligible amount or slightly more than the most they intended to pay. Sometimes, they should just be able to buy the thing with the items of currency they’ve collected.

These items of currency are what I find interesting. This is another area where I feel like more of a mechanic provides a big gain in verisimilitude. If even the least fae merchant can, at a whim, transform core pieces of a person into coin, why are they wasting their time doing so with peasants rather than kings? Instead, I postulate the following (tweak for the nature of the fae and mechanics in your own campaign):

  • Many fae, and some mortals, can learn various tricks to see and touch the stuff of mortal identity: your dreams are real to them, your secrets have a presence, and your personal traits linger like a cloud around you flickering with signifiers. This can give them an uncanny insight into your nature, for the things you believe are hidden within the darkness of your skull are plain to see for those that know how to interpret them. More importantly, with the right tools and right circumstances, seeing someone’s trappings is just the first step of taking them.
  • These tools are made through ritual and expense, from rare material and great skill. The least fae can weave webs to hold nightmares, prepare flasks to decant lesser memories, and bake a juicy secret into a pie. Stronger fae can make much more potent containers, which can hold trappings of much greater value. And even the least fae can fill a container given by a greater crafter.

Ultimately, I divide the currency of the fae into two rough categories:

  • Dross items have purchasing power similar to a gold piece or two (or silver for games like Beyond the Wall that have more conservative adventuring economies): each one was basically a day’s work for a lesser fae to craft and fill with a trapping. They can only hold the most minor of signifiers: stolen nightmares, captured applause, the least of secrets, and pieces of your competency easily given and hardly missed. They’re the pennies of the fae world, used for small purchases and sweetening a deal, but it’s somewhat gauche to try to make a big purchase with a lot of them.
  • Unique items were made with much more expensive and time-consuming rituals to hold trappings of real significance. Each has its own story, and, once filled, mutates from its original raw form into something fitting the significant piece of identity stored inside. Each has a base value that may change based on whether the alien needs of a particular fae values that trapping for some inscrutable purpose beyond use as a currency. After all, these things aren’t just a fun version of coin: they have value because some faerie, somewhere, has a real use for them. And if you want them back, you’d best find them before they reach their final buyer.

What this means is that lesser fae probably can’t buy your youth, your health, your love’s affection, or any other things of real value to you, unless they’re shiftily working as a front-fae for a much more powerful buyer that wishes to remain unnamed. Once you start asking what of yourself you can give up for that extremely pricey item, many fae merchants may have to direct you to a more powerful trader who has the requisite container to bottle what you’re selling.

This should really give you some time to rethink the trade you’re trying to make.

Another thing to keep in mind about the fae economy is that it has its own peculiar form of DRM: mortals are used to information being easily copied, so might think nothing of sharing a secret or a memory. Most of the time, though, this is an exclusive deal: if you trade in information, you no longer have it yourself. The lesser fae make a point of only trading for data you haven’t “backed up” by sharing with someone else, so when you forget it you can’t easily get it back. The more powerful traders can absorb information from everywhere else it exists, be it minds or writing, as long as it was actually yours to trade.

So how much can you actually get by shaving off pieces of your character’s identity?

As a core rule, trades should be inherently lossy: the merchant has to pay for market overhead and ritual components, at least. Even with the best haggling roll, if you think you’re getting an even swap (say, two points of one ability score for two points of another), you’re probably missing something. It’s more likely that even the best deals will leave you over 20% in the hole when comparing apples-to-apples (e.g., trade five points of ability scores for four).

Dross should be pretty easy to come by, and only start to have major effects if the characters try to create a lot of it from their identities in a very short period. The market’s no fun if you have to worry about the long-term negative effects of minor trades. By all means be very descriptive about the lost memories, emotions, and other personal qualities spun into dross, but they probably shouldn’t have any real, long-term mechanical effect on the character (perhaps some small penalties in the short term).

Unique items, however, should quickly transition into dear purchases. Brandes is hesitant to assess permanent ability score penalties, but I think they’re on the table as long as the currency you buy with them can be used to get something whose utility closely balances the regret at permanent lost character potency (possibly just through being something otherwise unavailable through prescribed system means). In 5e or other games with systematized personality traits/aspects, those are also good to spend. Skills/skill points can go as well. Secrets are good to use if they have real in-campaign utility (e.g., the secret way into your stronghold, your own true name or that of a powerful entity, etc.). Spellcasters can give up learned spells.

And, of course, “permanent” may be relative. Most of the boosts you can buy in the market are fleeting, so actual mechanical stat penalties may last just long enough to be super annoying and then gradually recover (as you make new memories/accrue replacement identity signifiers).

Like with the nature of items, the nature of fae currency is figuring out how to get player characters to do something the characters might regret forever, but which doesn’t actually permanently ruin the players’ fun. A lot of it will come down to your own players’ tolerances for roleplayed misery.

Come Buy, Come Buy (Part 1)

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My Beyond the Wall players, as mentioned in a prior post, finally decided they had enough of a handle on the campaign world to go into the Hedge searching for the market they’d learned of from a pack of defeated goblins. Their treasure from that encounter was a chest of stolen nightmares: clearly only the kind of thing human adventurers are going to get much use out of if they can find the place where commerce of that type happens. This meant I needed to think out exactly how I wanted the goblin market (really more of a faerie market in general) to work.

I’d done some improvisation on this score using Don’t Rest Your Head’s bazaar, which functions quite similarly. But what works for an extremely rules-light game doesn’t work as well for games like D&D that have a lot of assumptions built into player access to items and magic. Brandes has articles on goblin markets in general and ideas for what to find there, and you should read both of those articles before this one to be working from the same playbook I am as to what I still felt like I needed to create.

Themes of a Faerie Market

While I typically prefer the term “Goblin Market,” the poem with which that term is most linked is not exactly what I’m talking about (though well could be the pastime of the less savory merchants when they’re not at the big show). I tend to think more of the markets of Stardust and Hellboy II: massive gatherings of strange merchants with exotic wares, where you might wind up paying in coin you didn’t know you possessed.

In this kind of market, there can certainly be the wicked danger proposed by the poem, if your game wants to emphasize the Victorian morality involved. But I think you’ll often get more out of it by playing a bit more fairly with the players: purchases aren’t an inherently bad idea, but can still be extremely risky if you don’t know what you’re getting or spending. This is a fully functioning economy, just using rules that may defy the PCs’ intuitions from more mundane markets.

For my own purposes, I think the major themes to keep in mind when running such a place are wonder, consequences, and identity.

  • Wonder: At its core, visiting such a market is an opportunity to inject wonder into a game. Beings normally only encountered in frightening combats, legends, and as historical remnants are packed into a small space and going about their own personal shopping trips. You get to see them up close and may not even have to fight them. They may trade with you. This may be your best opportunity to gain information from primary sources, if you can ask the right questions. And it may be your opportunity to piss off a huge swath of powerful entities all at once, if you’re not careful.
  • Consequences: While the market may not inevitably be that of Rosetti’s goblins, tricking you into trading that which is most important for pretty poison, such an outcome is not off the table. Some merchants will outright try to cheat you, and even the “honest” ones are happy to take advantage of your ignorance to get a better deal for themselves. In particular, if you are rude or brash, you are unlikely to profit. If it looks like you got an excellent deal, far better than what you expected, there are probably hidden consequences. And, with a handshake bargain, there’s not even any fine print to read.
  • Identity: One of the classic things the market trades in is trappings of identity. You can pay with memories, beauty, youth, vigor, secrets, and many other types of coin that you didn’t even know were available to spend. The consequences are usually smaller but more obvious than a classic devil’s bargain for your soul: you get to spend the rest of your life understanding something about yourself that you didn’t realize was essential until it was gone. If you’re lucky, you can figure out how to buy it back. From the other side of the deal, what does it mean to profit from the trappings of someone else’s identity? Any boost you purchase may be powered by an essential trait of another person, taken into yourself.

The Nature of Market Items

The interesting thing about the market is the juxtaposition of seemingly fabulously powerful magics with an implied hidden drawback. Items that are normally the trappings of epic adventurers seem to be available for quite reasonable prices, even once you’ve gotten a handle on the true meaning of fae prices. How do you put such things into the game without breaking the itemization math upon which D&D is based?

I think the key is to keep most purchases fragile, fleeting, evanescent, and/or ephemeral. Not only should they mostly be consumables (as Brandes notes), they should defy the traditional D&D logic of consumables by including spoilage. In my experience, potions, scrolls, and charged items accumulate, becoming dangerous to game balance in their ability to be saved until their moment of greatest advantage. Part of their costing is based on being a reserve spell when the math said you should be out of daily resources. Making fae purchases into something that must be used now, or at least soon, can go a long way toward eliminating worries about whether they’re too cheap. Especially if the fae traders are on a schedule that doesn’t suit the whims of the PCs, it’s pretty easy to give out items that are lots of fun to use, but which won’t be available to wreck scenarios set a few days or weeks later.

Also, as noted under themes, items purchased from the fae are likely to have hidden drawbacks, not the least of which is being spun from the trappings of someone else’s identity. What shortcuts did the fae crafter take to make something so powerful that can be sold so cheaply? Does its core still carry the intentions of its originator, making it unexpectedly hard to use? Will it, even in the best case scenario, begin to warp your own identity through leakage or as a core principle of how it works?

If you can get your players into a deep anxiety about whether they were cheated or got a fabulous deal, and whether they can risk using this thing vs. risking letting it expire, you’ve properly created the item.

Minor Miscellaneous Items and Fortune-Binding

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This post is especially tailored to Beyond the Wall, and may be less useful if you’re using 5e or Pathfinder. It also starts with an aside to bring in a variation of attunement to the system, to keep characters from hanging on to every single minor miscellaneous item in case it ever proves useful.

Fortune-Binding

Many magic items are “fortune-bound,” and do little or nothing unless the bearer chooses to make them a temporary part of her legend. The bearer must spend a fortune point for one to become tied to her fate (assumed to be spent automatically if kept between adventures, without reducing starting fortune for the next adventure). Each character may only sustain a number of fortune-bound items equal to her maximum fortune points; binding a new item past this limit requires letting another become unbound and inactive.

Certain powerful fortune-bound items may automatically bind to the wielder, forcing lesser items to unbind if it pushes the wielder over the limit, and may even take up more than one “slot” of fortune points. If you put on the One Ring, it’s not going to wait for you to willingly bind it first. But at least they don’t cost fortune points to bind.

Binding an item typically unbinds it to its previous owner, though not in all cases (particularly for powerful items).

In general, weapons, armor, and other such functional items are rarely fortune-bound, but some of their more esoteric abilities might be. Likewise, potions, scrolls, and such consumables also do not require binding: their magic is self-contained and consumed by use. Ultimately, most fortune-bound items are those that provide some kind of selective and intuitive ability: being bound to a wielder’s fortune not only sustains their magic, but allows them to function at the appropriate time (i.e., automatically when the player wants the bonus).

Characters may also take the following new trait:

Signature Item: You have made an item fully part of your own legend. If it is fortune-bound, it does not count against your fortune points (i.e., it’s an “extra” fortune-bound item). If it is lost, it will always find its way back to you. If it is given away, lost without hope of recovery, or broken beyond repair, a replacement of similar utility will eventually make its way to you.

Example Items

Unless otherwise noted:

  • All items below are fortune-bound and charged.
  • The term “reroll” is shorthand for “expend a charge to reroll a failed roll that you just made.”
  • Powers can be activated as a free action when they are appropriate.

The most minor versions of the item can hold one charge, and you can make more powerful versions by allowing them to have more charges. By default, charged items regain all their charges overnight, and may also be recharged by the wielder spending a Fortune Point. Items may, of course, instead regain charges by any mechanism that suits the GM’s whimsy (e.g., a charm of Protection that is only recharged when the wielder suffers the full effects of a critical hit).

The items are presented as form-agnostic powers: since they’re limited to 3-5 per character, body slots don’t particularly matter. If the rogue wants to wear five rings, each with a different power, she should feel free to do so.

  • Animal Friendship: Reroll a Charisma check involving animals and other beasts of limited intelligence.
  • Biting: Expend one or more charges to increase the damage you deal with an attack or spell by +2 per charge (after rolling damage); this can at most double the damage dealt.
  • Blinking: Expend one or more charges as an action. You disappear from this reality into a nearby one. You cannot act while out of reality, but very few things can target you. You return to reality at the start of your turn after a number of turns equal to the charges expended.
  • Cantrips: Reroll a check involving activating a cantrip.
  • Crafting: Reroll a check involving crafting an item.
  • Deception: Reroll a check involving telling a lie, maintaining a disguise, or sneaking.
  • Health: Reroll a saving throw involving resisting a disease.
  • Hunting: Reroll a check involving following tracks, noticing things in the wilderness, surviving in the wilderness, or finding game animals.
  • Leadership: Reroll a Charisma check involving commanding or persuading followers.
  • Manners: Reroll a Charisma check involving etiquette, politics, or otherwise fitting in (either at court or on the streets).
  • Mind Shielding: Automatically expend a charge whenever subjected to a magical effect that would read your mind. That particular instance has no effect on you (e.g., if a spell, it would not work even with a long duration, but could be cast again).
  • Natural Armor: Expend one or more charges as an action (or as a free action simultaneous with taking your first action after the start of a combat). Increase your AC by an amount equal to the expended charges for the next ten minutes.
  • Perception: Reroll a Wisdom check involving noticing sensory data (actively or passively).
  • Persuasion: Reroll a Charisma check involving persuading, intimidating, or seducing an intelligent being.
  • Precision: Expend one or more charges immediately before making an attack roll to increase your result by +2 per charge expended.
  • Presentation: Reroll a check involving a performance.
  • Protection: Expend a charge to step down the success of an attack roll against you by one step (before damage is rolled) or step up the success of a saving throw you’ve made by one step (before the effects are declared) similar to the rules for sacrificing a shield.
  • Recall: Reroll an Intelligence check involving a lore or knowledge.
  • Regeneration: Expend a charge on your turn (maximum of one charge per turn) to heal hit points equal to your total level/hit dice.
  • Resistance, [Energy Type]: Expend a charge to halve a single instance of damage you’re about to take of the particular type, after damage is declared.
  • Rituals: Reroll a check involving casting a ritual.
  • Seeing: Expend a charge to detect all hidden, illusionary, invisible, or out-of-phase things within a 100 square foot area within viewing range (it lasts for a turn and that’s enough for a careful scan of such an area). Depending on the form-factor of the item, this may require looking through it.
  • Springing: Expend a charge to double the height and distance of a single jump.
  • Stoneskin: Activate this item as an action. While active, each time you take damage, halve it and expend a charge. Deactivate the item as a free action on your turn (it deactivates automatically when all charges are expended).
  • Striding: Expend a charge to double the distance you can move in a turn.
  • Sustenance: Expend a charge to act as if you had a single nourishing meal (3 charges/day to go completely without food and water).
  • Thievery: Reroll a Dexterity check involving locks, traps, sleight-of-hand, or sneaking.
  • Vigor: Reroll a Strength or Constitution check involving athleticism or raw physical potence.
  • Warmth: Expend a charge to ignore a single instance of damage to you from cold weather.

Beyond the Wall: Criticals and Gear Damage

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Beyond the Wall doesn’t normally have any rules for criticals (success or failure) or for gear damage. But, pursuant to my last couple of posts, I’d like to increase item turnover and adding those seems like a good first step for doing so. These are optional rules for Beyond the Wall (or any other low fantasy d20 game, particularly ones that don’t already have critical rules). They add some extra combat complication, but are likely to be rare enough occurrences (and mostly player-directed) that it shouldn’t slow down play too much to reference them when they do come up.

Critical Results

The Success Hierarchy

Whenever the rules below refer to stepping up or down a level of success, they’re referring to the following progression:

  • Critical Success: Usually has twice the normal level of success
  • Success: A normal successful result
  • Partial Success: Usually has half the normal level of success, or success with consequences
  • Failure: A normal unsuccessful result
  • Critical Failure: A really bad failure

When rolling normally, a partial success is only possible if a result steps up a failure or steps down a success. If you’re using the rules for acting cautiously, it also occurs when one die succeeds and the other fails. Remember that, when acting cautiously, you have to get double 20s or double 1s to trigger a critical result.

According to the normal Beyond the Wall rules, an extreme result automatically succeeds or fails (e.g., 20 always succeeds on attacks and saves, and always fails on ability checks). Under these rules, an extreme result also triggers a critical result, unless there was no chance of success or failure except for the automatic one. For example, if your modified target number for an ability check is 20+, a 20 still fails but is not a critical failure. Similarly, if a low ability and high difficulty modifier have reduced your chance of success to 0 or less, a 1 still succeeds but is not a critical success. This will usually not come up for attacks and saves, but applies if it does.

Critical Success

A critical success usually has twice the normal effect.

  • For ability checks, it has twice the normal effect: either significantly better success, half the normal time, or half the normal materials depending on what makes the most sense to the GM.
  • For saves, not only was the dangerous effect avoided, but the character gains a +2 bonus that can be used within the next round to attack or circumvent the source that triggered the save (e.g., +2 to attack the caster of a spell,  +2 to a check to disarm or bypass a trap, etc.)
  • For attacks, it does double damage (just double the rolled total rather than rolling twice).

Critical Failure

A critical failure may result in something unusually bad happening from a failure.

For ability checks and saves, it presents the GM an opportunity: if the GM offers the failing character a fortune point, and it is accepted, the GM may narrate a particularly bad level of failure. Players may not spend fortune points to reroll after accepting a critical failure opportunity, and are stuck with whatever the GM describes. A player in direct opposition to an NPC may pay one of her own fortune points to trigger an opportunity caused by that NPC (the NPC does not get the fortune point, it is just spent); this will usually only happen when the player does something that forces the NPC to save, or the player is in a contested ability check of some kind with the NPC.

For attacks, a critical failure forces the character to roll for a fumble result. Roll 2d20 as if acting cautiously, attempting to get 11+ for a success, and compare the result to the following chart:

  • Critical Success: You are knocked fortuitously off-balance, and gain a +2 to your next attack against the same target within a round.
  • Success: Your failure is a normal one, with no additional effect.
  • Partial Success: You are knocked off-balance, and take a -2 to all attacks until you spend a round recovering your balance (this is cumulative if you suffer multiple off-balance results before taking time to recover).
  • Failure: You are disarmed. It will take you a full round to recover your weapon (and certain terrain may make this even harder).
  • Critical Failure: Your weapon is broken and useless until repaired.

Other Sources of Gear Damage

Sacrifice Weapon

After rolling an attack (but before rolling damage), you may choose to have your weapon break to increase the level of success by one step (i.e., a failure becomes a partial success, a partial success becomes a full success, or a full success becomes a critical success). The attack does its damage and then the weapon is broken; you are essentially breaking your weapon for additional force or advantage. At the GM’s option, this may not work for weapons harvested from the environment for free (because they’re not brittle enough to shatter, and also because this is a rule designed to actually cost the player something), or weapons that are unbreakable.

Sacrifice Shield

After an attack is rolled against you (but before damage is rolled), you may choose to have your shield break to decrease the level of success by a number of steps equal to the shield’s AC bonus (e.g., a +2 AC reinforced shield turns a critical success into a partial success and a partial success into a critical failure, while a regular +1 AC shield only reduces a critical success to a regular success or a partial success into a failure). The GM may choose to have this not work against certain attacks that would bypass the shield

You may also use this option on saves made against a source that could logically be blocked by a shield (e.g., breath weapons, traps, etc.). In that case, step up your save’s level of success by the shield’s AC bonus.

Sacrifice Armor

After an attack deals damage to you, you may choose to have your armor break to reduce the damage. Divide the dealt damage by the AC bonus of your armor (e.g., by two for +2 leather armor, by four for +4 chain, etc.). You lose the armor’s AC bonus for subsequent attacks until the armor is repaired.

Attack to Strike a Weapon

As a combat option, you may make an attack to strike your opponent’s weapon instead of the opponent. Make an attack against the target’s Strength or Dexterity (whichever is higher). Use the opposite of the fumble chart for your result (i.e., fumble gives the target a bonus, failure has no effect, partial success knocks the target off balance, success disarms the target, and critical success breaks the target’s weapon). If your weapon’s damage die is smaller than the target’s, reduce your success by one step (it’s hard to disarm or break a sword with a dagger). If you’re wielding your weapon in two hands and the target is not, increase your success by one step (it’s easy to disarm or break a dagger with a greatsword).

The “Fragile” Quality

Some weapons may be considered “fragile.” This is common for primitive materials like glass, bone, and stone. Treat all “disarmed” results on fragile weapons as “broken.”

Nonsensical Results

Some results may not make sense for certain weapons. If a target has claws or other natural weapons, a disarm result doesn’t make sense. If the target’s weapon has the unbreakable ability, a break result doesn’t make sense. In these and similar cases, step down the result to the first result that does make sense.

Repairing and Refitting Gear

Repairing

Weapons can only be repaired in the field if it makes logical sense (such as for hafted weapons in a forest with available woodworking tools).

Shields cannot be repaired in the field if broken.

Armor can be partially repaired in the field with an Intelligence (Smithing) check; in this case, it regains half its normal AC bonus. If the wearer chooses to sacrifice it again, it can only be repaired up to half that AC bonus, and so on (e.g., you can sacrifice a +4 AC chain armor twice in the field before it’s down to only +1 AC after repair and no longer worth sacrificing).

In town, a broken weapon, armor, or shield costs about half its normal value to repair (possibly less with a friendly smith or if the character has the skill and tools to try to repair it herself).

Refitting

Found weapons and shields are generally usable by anyone (unless they are sized for particularly small or large creatures). Armor, however, is generally customized for an individual. Unless the GM decides that the armor was fitted to someone with almost exactly the same proportions as the character using it, treat it as broken when found (this is particularly true if it was looted from a slain opponent, who probably took some hits to it in the fight). As normal, the character may make an Intelligence (Smithing) check to try to “repair” it in the field (adjusting it so it can be worn with some benefit), and it costs half its base value to refit it in town.

Minor Weapons

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Related to last week’s post, one of the big issues with item loss is that 3.x created very attractive magic items that had bonuses that could be worked directly into the sheet. When you have a +3, Flaming weapon, everything about that is permanently incorporated into your weapon block. It feels like a part of your character. Taking it away feels like losing stats.

In addition, it creates an impetus to price every magical effect (exacerbated by 3.x‘s formalized item economy), and there are definite winners and losers when you do that. Interesting but highly situational effects get comparison-shopped out of use. You’d only deliberately create a Ghost Touch weapon if you were fighting a ton of incorporeal creatures, and you might use it on a weapon that you got as treasure, but each time you have a downtime you’re going to think about selling it to get something with a more consistently useful bonus.

So for my upcoming Beyond the Wall campaign, I’m thinking about placing a flat moratorium on enhancement bonuses and any item abilities that provide some other kind of reliable bonus (of the kind that can easily be tagged to a stat line such as +1d6 fire). Instead, items will hopefully be completely focused on their abilities, and a cool item with an ability you like might be something you hang onto throughout your career (meanwhile, items you use less often won’t cause emotional pain when they’re lost).

Below is some tinkering with how this will work for weapons.

Minor Abilities

Most 3.x weapon abilities that don’t provide a flat bonus to attack or damage are probably directly useful, particularly Brilliant Energy, Dancing, Distance, Ghost Touch, Keen, Returning, Seeking, Spell Storing, and Throwing. New abilities could include:

  • Bane: This ability is usually contingent. Creatures damaged by the weapon suffer a penalty of 2 to all d20 rolls the subsequent round (this penalty stacks from multiple hits from bane weapons). If the weapon is held to a creature’s skin (or a contingent creature tries to wield it), the penalty is ongoing and the creature takes one point of damage per minute.
  • Blessed: This weapon can harm creatures that are only vulnerable to holy items, and may be useful for various story-related reasons.
  • Elemental: This weapon sheds an energy of some type (e.g., fire, cold, electricity). Its damage is treated as that type against creatures vulnerable to it, and it may, at the GM’s option, deal more damage than a normal weapon against creatures resistant to physical damage (e.g., a cold steel sword may do nearly as well as a silver sword against lycanthropes, but does nothing extra against a winter fae). The wielder may also use the energy for utility purposes (e.g., a fire weapon emits light and ignites things like a torch, a cold weapon can be used to slowly make ice, and an electricity weapon could be used to power ancient mechanisms).
  • Functional: This weapon is especially useful for a named function as a tool. A slashing weapon may be especially good at cutting underbrush or felling trees, while a bludgeoning one may be particularly good at smashing through obstructions. It grants a +2 bonus to skill checks to perform the task when the GM doesn’t let it succeed automatically.
  • Life-Drinking: A creature slain by this weapon heals the wielder a number of HP equal to the creature’s hit dice or level.
  • Lightweight: This weapon can be wielded far more easily than its form-factor implies. Two-handed weapons can be wielded in one hand, and one-handed weapons can be treated as light (sufficiently to be used by smaller characters or easily off-handed).
  • Magic: This weapon can harm creatures that are only vulnerable to magic items, and may be useful for various story-related reasons. Unless an item specifically references this ability, possession of other abilities does not imply that it is sufficiently magic for bypassing resistances.
  • Puncturing: This ability is usually contingent. The weapon’s attacks ignore the target’s bonus from worn or natural armor (but not from a dexterity or other bonuses to AC; i.e., make a touch attack in 3.x parlance).
  • Slaying: This ability is usually contingent. After rolling damage against a target, if double that amount of damage would drop the creature to 0 or fewer HP, the creature immediately dies; if it would not, the rolled damage is applied normally. For example, against a target with 10 HP remaining, attacks that deal 4 or less damage work normally, while attacks that deal 5 or more damage kill the target.
  • Unbreakable: When wielded in combat, this weapon cannot be broken (by directed attacks or misfortune). It is up to the GM whether this effect can be used for utility purposes (e.g., bracing something to keep it closed or otherwise stuck).
  • Warning: This ability is usually contingent upon type. The weapon glows or otherwise does something to notify the wielder of nearby threats.

Contingencies

Many abilities are contingent on something. A weapon can have different contingencies for different abilities.

  • Charged: The weapon must be charged through some action, and retains the ability for a certain period afterward and/or until a certain action expends the charge.
  • Code: The ability only functions while the wielder maintains a code relevant to the creation of the weapon.
  • Desperation: The ability only functions when the wielder has been reduced to half or fewer HP.
  • Environment: The ability only functions in a specific terrain (e.g., forest) or other environmental condition (e.g., outside in a storm).
  • Inherited: The ability only functions if the wielder is of a particular race or specific lineage (possibly including being trained in particular class or order rather than bloodline).
  • Situational: The ability only functions under some other quantifiable situation (e.g., during the day, against an oathbreaker, etc.).
  • Type: The ability only functions against a particular race or other specific description of target type. If the target is usually only vulnerable to a particular material, the weapon is almost always made of that material (e.g., lycanthrope-bane weapons are almost always made of silver).
  • Unbowed: The ability only functions when the wielder is unwounded/at full HP.

Example Weapons

  • Blood Drinker: This weapon (usually a sword or dagger) may be charged by the wielder taking damage as a free action (cutting oneself on the blade). While charged, it is slaying and life-drinking until it has slain a target or the blood dries. The damage taken by the wielder starts at one HP, and increases by one for each time it is used in a day.
  • Coffin Nail: This iron dagger may be charged by leaving it buried under a crossroads during the night of the full moon. While charged, it is bane, ghost touch, magic, and slaying against undead. The charge ends after a full cycle of the moon or once it has slain a single undead. Due to its bane property, undead that cannot be permanently slain can at least be buried under a crossroads with the nail in their hearts (the ongoing damage of the weapon keeping them quiescent).
  • Commoner’s Holdout: This small, concealable weapon is slaying and puncturing when the wielder is suffering desperation.
  • Family Weapon: This weapon is unbreakable while the wielder maintains the family code, magic when wielded by an inheritor of the family, and may also have other powers related to the family’s history.
  • Hedgecutter: This functional weapon (a sword or axe) is extremely good at cutting through vines, thorns, and other undergrowth to harvest them or forge a trail. It is bane and puncturing against plant creatures.
  • Sidhe Sword: This silver blade was forged for fae nobility. It is unbreakable against any situation other than cold iron. When wielded by an inheritor with fae blood, it often displays other powers.
  • Siegebreaker: This large mace or mattock is functional at destroying doors, walls, and other fortifications. It is slaying and puncturing against construct creatures. Some say it is lightweight for those that follow the right code.

The Karma of Item Loss

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I recently read the Paksennarion novels, on the recommendation of Jim Butcher when he was asked in a Q&A about good literary examples of non-abrasive paladins. One of the most interesting things to me about the series is that, even though it seems very inspired by AD&D, the protagonist acquires magical gear rarely and, when she does, she loses it within a few chapters. Sometimes she gets captured and stripped of all her gear, never to see much of it again. Sometimes she realizes the provenance of an item and returns it to its rightful owner. Sometimes she needs to turn over an item as proof of her good intentions. Either way, she uses an item for a few significant scenes, and then it’s gone.

This is very different than the standard D&D playstyle that I’m familiar with, particularly in 3.x-era games. Magical gear is integral to the game math, and it’s not fun for players to lose the mechanical advantage it represents. Players might sometimes give up a piece of incidental gear, and regularly try to trade in weaker gear plus cash for an upgrade, but if the GM engineered Paks-style situations to relieve the players of their gear and send them back to non-magical items, they’d riot. If they discovered an item actually belonged to someone else, they’d expect a reward in exchange for not just keeping it. If an NPC demanded one of their prized items as proof of their intentions, they’d also expect the payoff better well be worth it. Players hate the idea of being captured anyway, and would hate it more if they could never recover stripped gear.

And yet, some degree of regular item turnover would go a long way to fixing the Christmas Tree Effect (the tendency of PCs to become festooned with miscellaneous gear such that they glow like the holidays under Detect Magic). When players are constantly getting new gear and retaining it, it’s hard for any particular item to become interesting or significant the way they are in most fantasy literature. The newest edition of D&D has tried to counter the problem by just giving out much less magical treasure, and limiting how many significant items a single character can attune, but that has its own issues. Like it or not, the magical item cycle is deeply wrought into the flow of D&D: if players go whole adventures without getting new gear, it can feel like they’re not accomplishing much (particularly in a game where XP awards are also standardized).

However, actually losing items (while still gaining them regularly) could have a number of benefits. Firstly, players could prioritize which ones they refuse to give up (and ideally have plot protection against getting stolen): this immediately creates a more traditional fantasy feel where the character has items of significance that stay with her for long stretches. Secondly, items coming and going could slow the need to create an upgrade path: “These monsters were easier to fight when I had a magic sword, and hope to get a new one soon,” is more interesting than, “I’ve had this stupid +1 sword forever, and I need an upgrade.” Finally, it creates more room for experimenting with the varied options for items that are so dense in D&D: there are often items that are mechanically optimal for a particular body slot and character build, keeping players from bothering to try anything that’s more interesting but possibly less effective unless they’ve lost the optimal item.

You could handle this kind of thing with a simple inclusion in the play contract: “Listen, guys, I’m going to give out more magical gear than expected, but I’m also going to engineer a lot of situations to take it away.” But I think it might go down even easier with a carrot, and I’d use something like the following:

  • Add in character bonuses similar to the backgrounds, merits, advantages, edges, etc. so common to skill-based systems. These include social bonuses (allies, contacts, mentors, retainers, and that kind of thing) and more esoteric bonuses (supernatural or at least unusual benefits not easily accessible through D&D character options).
  • The GM can award these directly when desired (often as quest rewards, or natural outgrowths of actions within the world).
  • They are primarily gained though item loss: the value of a piece of gear translates to points that can be spent on bonuses. This translation only happens when an item is disposed of through gifting (allowing the player to spend the points on a relevant social bonus) or through theft (allowing the player to spend the points on the more esoteric bonuses).
  • Thus, as characters fluctuate in practical power as they have different amounts of items at different times, each piece of previous gear is reflected in increased character options. Since players tend to value NPCs more when they add them to their character sheets anyway, it’s a win-win.

Ultimately, the benefit given for a lost item doesn’t have to be directly balanced with the mechanical value of the item itself, as long as it’s something the player couldn’t have easily gotten while still keeping the item. It just needs to be enough of a transaction that the player doesn’t feel like a piece of the character was lost without benefit, but was instead exchanged for something else.

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